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Reflecting on the Greenworld: Ecopagan Utopias and How Quickly they Become Dystopian
by Anna McKerrow
In 2015 Crow Moon, my first ever novel - and the first in an ecopagan utopia/dystopian YA trilogy - was published by Quercus.
Set slightly in the future, my concept for the trilogy was that the UK had divided into the Greenworld - a peaceful, utopian ecopagan community based in Devon and Cornwall, ruled by pagan witches, and the Redworld, the rest of the UK (and, to the Greenworlders, the rest of the world), which was corrupt, crime-ridden, dystopian and rapidly running out of fuel, due to an ongoing war fuel in Russia.
All sounds rather familiar now, doesn’t it? Well, except for the part about the west country being an ecopagan utopia. More of that later.
Of course, I wasn’t being unusually prescient by writing about a war over fuel or a divided country when I began writing in 2013-2014. We have all been aware for a long time that have been many wars over oil, and there will be continuing issues over the ownership of oil and gas.
We are also aware that the petrochemical industry has for many years persuaded governments not to invest in sustainable fuel futures. Anyone who has a vague care about the environment in the past 50 years will also know the terrible things that pollution from fuel, and practices such as fracking, do to the environment. Most people also know that Russia owns some of the most fuel-rich land on the planet.
As to the division between the Greenworld and the Redworld, at the time I was thinking more about Scottish and Welsh (and even Cornish) independence which had been rumbling around for some time. Sadly, I couldn’t imagine at the time that Brexit would happen, and Great Britain would annex itself from the rest of Europe in such a strangely self-defeating act of isolationism. The pro-Brexit among us may have had a utopian vision of a better Britain, somehow, but of course, being in isolation has already exacerbated many existing problems, notably racism and intolerance, and created new ones, such as cost of living increases, food and goods shortages etc.
The first book in the trilogy, Crow Moon, is set in the Greenworld, the annexed Devon and Cornwall, which is run by pagan witches with a strong ecological focus. In these books, I wanted to represent a witchcraft which was closer to the modern witchcraft I know, rather than the fantasy witchcraft one sees so much in the media.
I should note here, by the way, that modern witchcraft and paganism are two different things. Paganism refers to a nature-based belief system in which people believe Nature is divine, and that divinity is immanent in all nature (pantheism). It includes a concentration on seasonal festivals, where the Wheel of the Year is celebrated as the natural times and tides pass by. These include the solstices and the equinoxes, and four other “cross quarter” festivals, making eight in total. Again, some of these are ancient, and some were, arguably, made up for the modern Pagan revival.
Witchcraft refers to a specifically magical practice, wherein a witch, either alone or as part of a group, works magic for their own ends. Witches can be pagan, and celebrate all the festivals, but not all of them are. Modern witches can be Wiccan, traditional, polytheist, atheist; work with particular cultural magical practices or mixes of things, herbal traditions, ceremonial magic, tarot, the list goes on. It is an incredibly “broad church” to use a heretical misnomer, and also completely decentralised and anarchic.
Usually, witches in fiction are either caricatures – warts, noses, green skin (not only a nod to anti-semitic imagery, but also a basic indictment of the older woman); they're based around Salem or UK witch trials, and unfortunately there's a morality message there, intended or not - this is what happens when you're a powerful woman and want to be assertive, want to be independent or sexual or provide a challenge to the status quo in any way. Witches are also sometimes played for humour, or in a horror context.
There's a more recent move to thriller-based drama using medieval and historical ideas about witches in modern or historical settings. But even so, it's usually the idea about witches being supernatural in origin or 'just having' magical powers that then need to be controlled by some kind of stentorian medieval devices: an essentially untrue and disempowering premise.
That's not how I wanted to represent a witch.
To me, it made total sense to link a community run by witches to a strong ecological focus, because the development of modern witchcraft and, more generally, paganism, in Europe and the USA since the 50s, has always revered Nature as divine.
I wanted to present the reality-based pagan approach where witches are made, not born, out of hard work, in the main. All witches of history in all cultures and all present-day ones learn their skills. No-one is conferred magical powers on their sixteenth birthday, or via an unfortunate accident, or from a curse, or a gift from a mysterious stranger. Of course, the idea that anyone can be powerful – and learn powerful methods – terrifies most societies, which is presumably why we have to have these ridiculous premises for magic in the first place. The other reason is because our secular western society still doesn’t believe magic exists, despite huge evidence to the contrary, eg people all around the world doing it.
I wanted to present witches as deeply devoted and spiritual people that work closely with divinities and nature. Once you understand that a witch has to know the natural world intimately to make magic - understand the natural rhythms of the world we live in - then you realise that the link between witchcraft and ecology/environmentalism (and, sometimes, but not always, activism) is irrevocable.
When you worship the earth as a Goddess, living and breathing, then you should care about what happens to it. Now, this is not to say that everyone in the world that identifies as a witch cares about environmentalism at all. Many don’t. But, logically, they should.
So, witches = environmentalism was not a very big leap to take. Once you have that idea in mind, you can start to imagine what witches might do to try and save the land they revere, and thus the story comes along. (Incidentally, there is also a fascinating history of the intersection between activism and witchcraft, with groups such as W.I.T.C.H and even (though not witchcraft) the recent pro-abortion activism of the Church of Satan in the US.)
In Red Witch, the second book in the series, I examined the dangers of fracking. Clearly, in the “Redworld”, a world at war for the last scraps of fuel, fracking would have been used. Resistance against fracking was very big in England at the time, and in fact there had been talk about fracking in Somerset, near to Glastonbury Tor. Obviously, the hippie community was up in arms about that and local opposition meant it never happened. The Huffington Post summed up Red Witch pretty well when it said:
“Recognisable and therefore terrifying, the Redworld depicts a society oppressed and dismantled by greed, and desecrated by the ruthless search for fossil fuels. Through the eyes of Demelza Hawthorne, the powerful yet anguished teenage protagonist, the horrors of fracking and the extreme consequences of policies which serve the rich and exploit the poor are described with a chilling authenticity. Perhaps most disturbing, are scenes where the sacred areas around Glastonbury have been mercilessly torn apart as a consequence of fracking: plans to frack in Somerset were put forward by UK Methane in 2013. As she struggles with romance, deception, betrayal and grief, Demelza's relationship to the environment itself is also put under tremendous strain as she begins to understand her own hard-won power.”
A Magical Solution to Fracking and Climate Change? The Huffington Post, 2016
It's interesting to look back and see that fracking was also pretty unpopular with the upper-class villages of the south west too. For a while, the dangers of fracking was a topic that hippies and toffs could both get behind. It may have been that Tory voter pressure that made the government step back from pursuing fracking quite so enthusiastically as it once did – who knows. Or perhaps it was the dragon dance that happened on the Tor in the summer of 2016.
When I imagined the Greenworld, it was utopian from the point of view of being self-sustaining, nature-loving, woman-centred, connected to magic and having its heart in the right place. I knew that no utopias are perfect, and that they often become dystopias rather quickly (the Netflix series about the spiritual guru Osho Wild Wild Country is very interesting). One of the things I was interested in writing about was how even an environmental, right-on green, witchy community run by women could very easily become corrupt because of its intentional seclusion. Like Brexit Britain, the Greenworld suffered because of its lack of connection to the outside world. It became stagnant and ignorant. Spoiler alert: in the final book of the trilogy, the Greenworld and the Redworld have to reunite to stop the end of the world. A salutary lesson for us all that no closed off community works in the long term – even a green utopia.
However, it’s interesting to look back on the ecopagan utopia I created in the Greenworld and think about some things that have happened in real life that put it into a different perspective: namely, the pandemic.
If there is anywhere in England that already inhabits the Greenworld vibe, it’s Glastonbury in Somerset. Glastonbury has a long history of welcoming spiritual seekers, from the days of the Abbey and Christian hermits living on the Tor to the Victorian occult revival, when Dion Fortune would bring her moneyed London friends down to Glastonbury on the weekends for some rural magic fun. Today, it’s witchcraft central. You can’t buy bread without overhearing someone talk about their past life regression.
During the pandemic, the already super-hippie Glastonbury got taken over by conspiracy theories about the vaccine. A very high proportion of Glastonbury residents refused to be vaccinated. If you wore a mask on the high street, you got dirty looks or shouted at (this continues still). Posters went up everywhere about how Covid wasn’t real; there were anti-vaccine marches in the high street.
What was always quite a mad place became absolutely, stark, crazy bonkers, ushering in a new, troubling allegiance between formerly as-left-as-you-can-go people and hard right QAnon philosophy. It's the perfect storm of what happens when a group of anarchists who already have big issues with Big Pharma and government and, in many cases if not all, are engaged in being as off the grid as possible, become radicalised further by conspiracy theories.
This is not to say that all modern witches have refused the vaccine or now believe that the holocaust didn’t happen (I have heard of friends of friends who now believe this. Or that the vaccine has taken away a part of our souls. Or that vaccine passports are tantamount to a police state. Or that there is a tracking device in the vaccine. Standard paranoid crap, but you don’t expect anyone you know to actually believe it).
Most modern witches and pagans are entirely sensible people. And, indeed, I think it’s fair to say that many of the anti-vaccine, conspiracy group are likely not doing witchcraft or magic – or, if they are, not doing it very successfully. However, it is likely that they would characterise their beliefs as broadly pagan, or perhaps Buddhist or some more general new age philosophy.
Whilst I think we all could have seen a possible conflict with Russia over fuel coming, and may have been disappointed but unsurprised about the Brexit result, I definitely did not predict Glastonbury, the real-life Greenworld, going full circle to meet the fascists. And I think that there’s something sad about the fact that countercultural Glastonbury, the closest parallel in the real world to the Greenworld, is so susceptible to corruption. Because what does that say about the link between environmental activism, Nature worship and Britain’s proud countercultural tradition?
I feel sad that what I used to think of the pagan community - a bastion of healthy resistance against the norm and a cheerful if slightly bonkers love of mother earth – has, in some quarters, morphed from caring deeply about the land and its divinity to being obsessed with how it is being controlled by a shadowy, fictional elite. Paranoia has taken over.
Eva Wiseman wrote a great article about just this in The Guardian in which she used the phrase “conspirituality”:
“A rapidly growing web movement expressing an ideology fuelled by political disillusionment and the popularity of alternative worldviews”. It describes the sticky intersection of two worlds: the world of yoga and juice cleanses with that of New Age thinking and online theories about secret groups, covertly controlling the universe. It’s a place where you might typically see a vegan influencer imploring their followers to stick to a water fast rather than getting vaccinated, or a meditation instructor reminding her clients of the dangers of 5G, or read an Instagram comment explaining that vaccines are hiding tracking devices.”
What do we want to protect Nature from now? For me, it was (and still is) pollution and harmful practices like fracking and dumping rubbish at sea. But for many, it seems that the number one concern of the Greenworld (as it exists as a mindset) seems to be revolting against a drug that has saved millions of lives.
I am disenchanted with where we find ourselves now, but I also think it’s instructive to see all this play out. With the “conspirituality” movement in our minds, it feels reasonably impossible to me that anyone could write an eco-utopia now – but, there is fertile ground for dystopia.
Find out more about the Greenworld trilogy
Anna McKerrow is an author, Reiki Master, tarot reader and witch. She lives in London and wrote Daughter of Light and Shadows, an adult commercial fantasy romance set in Scotland and the faerie realm. In 2019 her occult novel The Book of Babalon was published by Black Moon Publishing, a small press based in New Orleans and dedicated to voudoun, ceremonial magick and Left Hand Path subjects. In 2021 she published a mythic novel about grief and healing called The Bird Atlas. She is currently working on The Path to Healing is a Spiral, a nonfiction memoir about her experience of a variety of healing modalities for Watkins Books (September 2022).
In this issue’s extract from a book featuring a climate solution, Anna M Holmes shares an extract from Blind Eye, an environmental thriller set in the Indonesian rainforest about illegal logging and the inter-connected global community. The book suggests one positive action consumers can take is to buy wooden products from well-managed forests. This extract is main character, Ben, persuading Trevor Arnott a UK retailer to change his ways:
‘Look, Mr Arnott, let’s flip things around. Don’t think about rules and regulations. They’re important, we know that, but let’s look at outcomes. You want to be a market leader? Then what would be a good outcome for you, for your customers, your shareholders? And what would be a good outcome for the community here? All the people living here who rely on the forest. And can we talk about the environment?
‘This sounds like a lecture.’
‘OK… OK.’ Ben had to agree it did.
‘And, you’ve had more than a minute.’
He clutched his phone, willing the man to stay with him. ‘And you’ve not hung up.’
‘No. I’ve not…’ Trevor sounded surprised. ‘Not yet.’
It took further phone calls and lengthy emails to persuade Trevor to take him seriously. Ben talked about the advantages if he gave his customers the clear message that he only stocked certified chain of custody wooden products. ‘No mixed messages,’ he warned Trevor. ‘Go green and stay green – all your lines. Work towards certification by the Forest Stewardship Council.’ Each of his emails had contained links to websites he wanted Trevor to look at, and benefits he could expect to see. Over and over he coaxed the businessman.
Good Energy Stories - a guidebook to climate screenwriting
Mary Woodbury, our social media coordinator, has a new subreddit for environmental fiction (including novels, films, etc.). Join in at https://reddit.com/r/Ecofiction/
Nature as a divinity is an ancient concept, reflected in all international mythologies, notably excluding the Judaeo-Christian religions. However, its popularity in modern pagan-oriented witchcraft practices is largely a modern invention and a nostalgic nod to old cultures, particularly the Greeks, Celts and Egyptians. Certainly in the UK, our history of witchcraft comes from ceremonial magic and the grimoire tradition via occultists, who one would not particularly characterise as very “green” although they would recognise spirits and gods of nature, and from the tradition of “cunning men” and village herbalists etc who worked traditional witchcraft, were very skilled with plants and herbs and were most likely very in tune with nature’s rhythms, but did not always centre the worship of a particular pagan god or goddess in their work. Many “cunning men” and what we would now think of as witches in the UK would have considered themselves Christians and would more likely have had a relationship with spirit rather than gods.